Feature

Great Scott - Forty years of RSA

'There are now too many creative people in the business ... resulting in mediocrity that has to be salvaged digitally.' Ridley Scott shares his opinions with Kunal Dutta.

Firing up the ads on RSA Films' 40th Anniversary Showreel is like opening a box of old love letters. You may recall their essence. They may even have time-stamped part of your life. But it's only when you see each one again, that you are sent back in time.

Try these images for starters: a baker boy wheels his bike up a hill, a girl flings a sledgehammer at a screen triggering a technological revolution and a couple motorcycle into the sunset, clad in Levi's 501s. For RSA Films, the production company set up in 1968 by Ridley Scott, these are just some of the pieces that have helped make it one of the most prolific production houses in the world.

In the UK, which so often plays second fiddle to the US in the film world, RSA stands as a distinct point of difference. Its founder commands respect in Hollywood. Ridley Scott has numerous box-office hits on his CV including Gladiator, Thelma & Louise, Blade Runner and Alien. His current crime thriller American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, has just opened to rave reviews and is tipped as an Oscar contender next year. His brother Tony directed the 80s blockbuster Top Gun and 90s thriller Enemy of the State.

Ridley Scott left the BBC after five years where he'd worked first as a set designer and then as a director. He established Ridley Scott Associates in the competitive climate of the late 60s alongside contemporaries that included Sir Alan Parker and Hugh Hudson. Six years later, he hired brother Tony as a full-time partner. Their early advertising is some of the most iconic of the 70s including the infamous "boy bicycle hill" for Hovis.

But it was the 80s when the brothers really hit their stride. A flurry of memorable ads included "border patrol" for Benson & Hedges (1981) which Ridley directed, while Tony directed "bop" for Smarties a year later. Both paved the way for one of the most memorable ads of the decade.

The $1.5 million "1984" Apple Computer ad launched the Macintosh. It broke with a single broadcast during the 1984 Superbowl. Steve Jobs' intention had been to equate the IBM PC with Big Brother and the Macintosh with a nameless heroine. Ridley Scott brought it to life and the ad is viewed as one of the most influential campaigns in history. Advertising Age named it "Commercial of the Decade" and many believe it is responsible for Apple's sound brand positioning today.

But RSA is not just about nostalgia. The next generation of Scotts - Jake, Luke and Jordan - continue to keep the family heritage of RSA alive. All three have breathed life into some of the most creative scripts and music videos of their generation. Tony directed a number of commercials for Levi's, Barclays and BMW, while Jake shot the 1993 Everybody Hurts video for R.E.M.

This heritage of RSA has since been strong enough to house some of the biggest British directors. Jake later started Black Dog, a division within RSA to foster new directing talent. Chris Cunningham has shot a number of projects through RSA including the infamous "mental wealth" ad for PlayStation. Sam Mendes, the American Beauty director, was signed to RSA's roster in 2003 and directed a number of ads from its New York office. Last year, Kevin Spacey directed an ad for FilmFour starring Ewan McGregor and Dame Judi Dench. While Hudson, the Chariots of Fire director, recently marked his return to advertising with an ad for Silverjet.

RSA, which has offices in London, New York and Los Angeles, boasts an international roster of more than 30 directors. The company has recently opened in Hong Kong and plans to open in Shanghai are on the horizon.

Life is good for Ridley Scott, who is currently directing Leonardo Di Caprio and Russell Crowe in the thriller Body of Lies. Straight after that, he will return to the UK to direct Nottingham, a retelling of the Robin Hood tale also starring Crowe. In between, the 70-year-old director found time to tell Campaign why advertising is still close to his heart.

- Why have you continued to direct commercials despite the success of your feature film career?

I don't direct commercials any more because I'm never asked. The last I did was with Bartle Bogle Hegarty for Barclays Bank some years ago. It was both enjoyable and challenging. I used to like directing ads between films because it was great practice. Now I seem to be directing films with greater frequency, so there isn't as much time, although I'm still fascinated by the evolution of the business as well as the output of creatives.

- Do you think commercials direction is important training for tomorrow's feature film directors?

Not necessarily. As a director, one of the key things I learned early on was to make decisions quickly enough to allow others involved to research and do their jobs. Today, there are too many chefs in the kitchen with agonisingly slow processes and indecisive pondering. A busy year for me could be as many as 100 commercials. Today, "busy" is seen as 12 per year. What does that tell you?

- What do you think of the quality of the direction in the UK and US advertising markets at the moment?

Good, mediocre and bad. As usual, there is always a meltdown of proportionate classifications. There are too many creative people in the business, particularly commercial directors. The best used to float to the top. Now they are often underbid, resulting in mediocrity that has to be salvaged digitally. No wonder it has become so expensive.

Instead, we should find directors with vision, support them, and it'll probably get better and, in the long term, cheaper.

- Do you think the UK is still punching above its weight in creative terms?

No. I don't think the UK is punching its weight. In my heyday as a director - which was fairly prolonged - there was a Monday morning show called Newcomers, which I'd always watch to see who was doing what. Today, there are so many ads from so many countries and cultures that it is hard to judge.

- What do you think of the quality of the ads themselves? Are the scripts as good as they used to be?

I'm not going to be drawn into the old adage "it was better in my day", but I do think it was fresher in my day because we were exploring untrodden ground. Nowadays, nearly everything has been done before, so the focus on "getting attention" means a lot of advertising has moved into an area of grotesque and really, really bad taste.

- What progress has the industry made over the past 40 years? What has it lost?

Generally the industry has taken a ghastly step towards the acceptance where "anything goes". To see some really "alternative" programming alongside more normal family viewing is shocking. So that's a giant and disappointing step backwards. It should be censured and rethought.

On the positive side, there is greater global awareness and educational documentaries. Certainly among channels in the US, the news, in particular, has become about ratings and entertainment. HBO, CBS, the BBC and Showtime can do really creative and engaging work.

- How do you think the production company business model is going to evolve over the next decade?

We're still hanging in there and are very aware of the evolution. Indeed that is what has kept us alive and competitive over all these years. When the bottom of the line for the production company was taken away, it forced us all to improve our business methods. Now there seems to be a reappraisal by our clients (agencies) to put the creative decisions in the hands of the best person.

Directors: should be supported, not constantly questioned and undermined. It happens in the film industry as well. Too many opinions have a negative effect and result in mediocrity.

- How is media fragmentation affecting the business? How is digital affecting the business?

Generally, despite the sophistication of the technology, we should remember that marketing and advertising are simply about getting the attention of the consumer - who is now international. Ideas have become more simplistic and visually reliant. I could even use the word "dumber". Ads used to be sometimes really well written, dialogued, dramatised and aiming upwards (not down to the lowest common denominator).

- Do you predict that increasingly clients are going to talk to production companies direct; that they will bypass advertising agencies?

We've talked about this for years. I used to direct Chanel No5 direct with the company, where I'd write and storyboard the idea. In those days, Chanel No5 was aiming to the high-end, older generation with a growing number of new fragrances for a younger market. So we cast Carol Bouquet, devised these magical poem commercials, and I believe they were very successful. No agency needed.

I learned as a producer that the hardest task is to find a director with the vision and toughness to follow an idea through.

- If so, what will the commercial and creative impact be?

In the days of Apple, Steve Jobs went to Chiat/Day who came up with the 1984 Orwellian idea. They approached me and I interpreted that into film. It was an attention-grabbing 60 seconds, where people wondered afterwards what it was. It really worked.

- Is the production company world fragmenting? Are there more small shops, led by one big-name director, than there used to be?

It will always evolve. We are getting a lot of work abroad in a very evolving market because we are perceived as reliable. But we're also creative and we'll deliver. We try to keep the smaller-shop mentality - like this is our only and last job.

- What does a production company add to the advertising process? Why shouldn't ad agencies simply commission their preferred director and his or her producer on a freelance basis?

They bloody well should do. Just that. If you want to direct, go try and do it. But don't come in my kitchen and bugger about with my cake mix or you'll lose your fingers.